What’s in a Veil?

Jepthah's daughter Chicago Inst of Art
(a spoken word performed Feb 10, 2013 Waterloo ON)

When you were born,
you came out of the womb (well, let’s be honest)
you came out a prune,
All wrinkly, squinty-eyed and pointy-headed.

Your parents held you
in trembling, coltish new-parent arms and
they said:
How beautiful
when what they really meant was:
how terrifying.
Then they glanced sideways at each other, with that innocent , easy,
never-to-be-repeated conspiracy of those
who have just, together, somehow stumbled into creating life,
and they knew
they just KNEW, that they would have to:
bundle you up,
and put you in the car,
and actually take you home,
And that was frightening.
But there was something even more frightening to do first.
The hospital came with the forms to fill out.
The nurse stood, hands on hips, and said: you can’t leave until you’ve done this.
And your parents then turned to each other and said:
have we decided, finally?

How shall we veil him?

It was a big responsibility, when they veiled you, their new baby,
their pride, their joy.
After all, it was all about YOU.
You were the one who had to live with this decision your whole life.
Was it a veil the other kids would tease you for?
Was it a veil that stood out, or a veil that blended in?
And back then, who was to know?
Imagine back, as if you were looking at one of those old Polaroid shots.
You know the ones. Of camping in the tent trailer.
The photos where someone’s wearing those denim shorts that were too tight, and that tee-shirt, and with that hair-do, can you believe it?
And those veils….so psychedelic. So sixties.
Imagine that.
And imagine, then,
what they must have been thinking, when they gave you your veil.
They must have asked themselves:
Is it a veil that , if they chose just right, might get you ahead, might get you noticed?
Was it a veil to push you past all those others fighting for jobs, for recognition, for security?
For love?
You see? You see how important it was?
Veiling shouldn’t just be left to chance.
But almost always, it is.

Or was the veil they chose for you a veil that’s too historical, too old-fashioned?
A sepia-tinted fabric that looked better on your grandparents, maybe, in the old country?
Maybe it was a veil for different times, another world, a different tongue,
a foreign soil and syllable and sun.
A rough, peasant fabric that worked then, not now.
Was yours a veil like that?

Oh, it must have been hard for them.
Because on the other hand, if parents aren’t careful, the veil can be too trendy.
A good idea at the time. But now?
Passé, like tomorrow’s stale croissants.
The kind of veil one sees on the front cover
of some glossy magazine at the supermarket,
and without thinking, gasps: oh, that’s a good one!
But! Hah. But:
ten years from today? It’ll look like the kerchief worn by some forgotten movie star,
the Jessicas and Justins and Jonnys and Brittainys and Ashleys,
Fabric abandoned to the bin of “cute, but didn’t last.”
Too flimsy, too changeable, too vapid and faddish.
Nothing dire.
Just, not enough there to protect, or inspire.
Or to add uniqueness
to the warp and weave that is life.

You’d think choosing how to veil a child a decision too big for most parents,
Which is maybe why we don’t think. Don’t decide. Aren’t conscious about it.
And then we live with the consequences.

Some people don’t, of course.
Live with the consequences, I mean.
The young woman I saw the other day who held out her arms to me for a book?
She’d forgotten.
But I saw.
Old scars, thankfully,
there, on her forearms.
She made those scars, I imagine, cutting off that first veil,
the veil her parents chose for her,
the veil drawn tighter and tighter around her by school,
and family, and relatives, and parties and trying to be someone else, and….
And maybe most of all, by herself,
A veil she couldn’t, what’s the word?
Suffer.
Until, suffocating,
in her rush to lose that first veil, it was – it must have been –
like shedding skin.

Oh, but men don’t wear veils, says the fellow sitting at the corner table,
in sunglasses, when there’s no sun,
Inside.
“Men don’t wear veils because we don’t have to,” he says – from behind his shades.
But I can barely hear him.
His voice is muffled, his veil so thick.
It’s the masculine veil, made of old superhero costumes, and football jerseys,
and beer ads carefully cut out, and hockey tape, and boasting, and NOT saying anything. It’s a patchwork made of hot cocoa and the camouflage pajamas he wore in grade two,
a veil of toughness. Even though he might secretly like to try vulnerable, he can’t.
Any tell-tale feminine colours acarefully covered over, or scribbled out.

“I don’t wear a veil either” pipes in the young woman at the other table,
“that’s those other people. You know, the religious ones.”
But I can barely see her, either,
through the shimmer of the lip gloss she had to have, like all her friends,
in grade six, the curtain of some celebrity’s perfume,
Her veil is colourful, made up of names and brands, tops by GAP,
cigarettes she smoked to fit in,
creams, conditioners, colours, her veil threaded through, incredibly, with her own skin.
Spelling the word sexy. Even though she mostly just looks afraid.
No.
No veil there.

That first veil? The one that comes home with us from the hospital?
It seems so natural we hardly know it’s there. Some folks never realise.
But it is.
Indulge me. Take a second, now,
and feel it. Maybe you’ve forgotten even that you’re wearing it.
But I’m here today to remind you.
It’s okay: reach up, and put your hands on your cheek.
Can you feel it?
Take a moment. It’s safe. Try it. Remember.
Place some of the gauzy material between your thumb and forefinger.
And give it a gentle rub.
What threads do you feel there? Are they smooth? Rough? A mixture?
All those half-hidden threads showing which aunt had a drinking problem,
which overly-religious uncle scared us half-to-death with stories of hell,
which father wasn’t there, or maybe was too-much there. The mother who bandaged you up when you fell.
Or didn’t.
The babysitters and books and recesses and graduations.
All those platitudes are there too, sewn in:
when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Always wear a smile.
Make a success of yourself. We’re proud of you.
All those threads, and more:
The bed-times with your siblings,
the preachers, the teachers, your first love, the first death, the first job, the time you didn’t think you’d make it through,
but you did.
Your last kiss.
What you were taught and what you just learned, period.
All those people who contributed one thread, even just one,
Or another.
I hope you can feel that cloth, and what’s in it.

That’s the thing about veils.
Although the basic fabric’s usually what we’ve been given,
they rarely stay the same.
We improvise,
or better: we are the cloth upon which improvisation happens.
Our experiences change us, catching textures like burrs on a cross-country walk,
We find ourselves shimmering just a moment with the colours
of someone we just met,
and maybe, knowing them long enough,
we take on some of that hue
permanently.

Did you know that even Emperor Augustus veiled himself
when offering sacrifice to the gods?
Moses covered up his glory.
Veils imply a limit, a protection,
a recognition that what’s within is not the same as what’s without.
A boundary, of sorts.
A story.

And even to my friend who once confided to me
“clothes are an improvement on the body”
I would answer this:
until truly, we are transformed from one degree of glory to another, I know:
Our veils will rise from sleep with us,
And go down to our dreams covering our heads.
But, at least, let us make them as nearly US, the outside reflecting the in, as we possibly can.
So that, when what is hidden is revealed,
and the dainty lace and cowboy flannel and urban black and country brown all removed,
unveiled and naked,
we stand before each other, and our God.
It will not so much be a surprise as a place to hear what is unbelievably, happily, graciously, true:
You are still a prune.
“And before you were named,
before you were veiled,
I knew you thus, all along.”

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